Alexander Birrell Wilkinson, known to friends and colleagues as Sandy, was born in Perth on 2 February 1932. His father was Captain Alexander Wilkinson, who served in the Black Watch.
After education at Perth Academy Sandy won a scholarship to study at St Andrews University, where he graduated with a first class honours degree in Classics. He then undertook National Service with the Royal Army Educational Corps, mostly in Germany.
Sandy decided to study law with a view to being called to the Bar. He graduated with the degree of LL.B with distinction at Edinburgh University. He devilled to John A Dick, a highly respected member of the Faculty of Advocates, and passed advocate in 1959. In the course of his own practice he had two devils, Dick Scott and Brian Gill, both of whom were destined for judicial office. When they had started in practice they could always turn to him for advice or encouragement.
In 1969 Sandy changed the course of his career in the law by taking up office as a sheriff, sitting in Stirling and Alloa. But having already been a part-time lecturer in Scots law at Edinburgh University he went on to take the unusual course of moving between judicial office and a full-time academic appointment.
In 1972 he was invited to take up the chair of Private Law at Dundee University. His time in that post was happy and productive. He provided not only academic strength and leadership, but was able to handle challenges with tact and consideration for others.
During his time in the University he served for two periods as Dean of the Faculty of Law. In 1986 he returned to the sheriff court, sitting successively at Falkirk, Glasgow and Edinburgh until 2001.
During that time he was Vice-President, and then President, of the Sheriffs’ Association. In that role he attracted praise for his mastery of the issues with which the Association had to deal.
He was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1993, and sat as a Temporary Judge in the Court of Session and High Court of Justiciary from then until 2003.
Alongside this work Sandy made a significant contribution to legal literature in Scotland. He was co-editor of two editions of Gloag and Henderson’s Introduction to the Law of Scotland, and author of The Scottish Law of Evidence.
He was the co-author, along with Kenneth McK Norrie, of The Law relating to Parent and Child in Scotland, a definitive text and the first comprehensive treatment of the law for many years. In addition he was a contributor to an edition of Macphail’s Sheriff Court Practice, and the author or co-author of articles on legal questions.
Sandy’s interest in the welfare of children and families extended to his chairmanship of the Central Scotland Marriage Council, and later the Scottish Marriage Guidance Council. He was for some years a director of the Scottish Child Law Centre and a director of Birthlink, a charity promoting the welfare of persons affected by adoption.
Sandy had a deep ecumenical faith. Although he had been brought up in the Church of Scotland, and indeed had been ordained an elder, he became increasingly interested in the liturgy and the form of service in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and was confirmed in that Church while he was a sheriff in Stirling.
He became a very committed member and was held in high regard. Sandy was appointed to be the Chancellor of the Diocese of Brechin, and later that of Argyll and the Isles, amply fulfilling the requirement that a Chancellor should be “a discreet lay person learned in the law”, acting as adviser to the Bishop, and, where required, as assessor at the Diocesan Synod. He also sat on a number of committees of the Church including those concerned with the supervision of the property of its Synod. He was the author of the entry for the Church in the Stair Memorial Encyclopedia, and contributed to the book Legal Systems of Scottish Churches.
Sandy had a very enquiring mind. His interests extended to world affairs, world faiths and philosophy. He was a keen collector of books on these subjects, as well as works of art and art medals. He also became very interested in the writings of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst and philosopher. For many years he took part enthusiastically in discussions and reading groups devoted to them. Sandy combined an openness to ideas with a skill in testing assumptions, without a loss of sensitivity to the views of others. All this he achieved despite increasing deafness which became profound in his later years.
Sandy was a very private man. Whatever he said had been deeply thought through. Throughout his life he was loved and admired for his wisdom, patience and quiet humanity. Many were grateful to him for his wise and helpful advice in times of trouble. An old friend has remarked that “his kindness and gentleness – not a quality invariably associated with members of the judiciary – are features of his personality that I shall always remember.”
In 1965 Sandy married Wendy Barrett, from Northern Ireland, who had come to Edinburgh to train as a social worker. He died on 17 January 2023, and is survived by Wendy, and their married children Jenni and Alan.
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